Canada's political culture: Different from U.S.

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Third parties may aspire to power but really represent change, and the hope of betterment, and want to rally the forces of change (however defined), to create a better world.

In trying to make sense of the daily jostling for position in the Canadian Parliament, it helps to understand the party system itself. Only parties with Conservative or Liberal in their name have held power, but modern Canada is not a two-party system. Technically we have a multi-party system. In reality Canada is a two-plus-one political party system, where the two main contenders face third parties, such as the CCF/NDP, Social Credit, Reform, Green or Bloc.

Canada's political parties are usually described as brokers. They bring together diverse interests, and engineer compromises that allow policies to be adopted, and positions to be taken. Third parties are something else again. They may aspire to power but really represent change, and the hope of betterment, and want to rally the forces of change (however defined), to create a better world.

Brokerage parties are centrist in policy orientation, taking positions that bridge political divides. The Liberal Party of Canada is the classic example. It has crossed the French language/English language division, and the owner/worker one as well.

Since the French-speaking population of Quebec began electing the Bloc in 1993, the Liberal would-be-brokers have lost a main client.

Many people, not just Liberals, wish the Bloc would just go away and predict its demise. But until a party capable of rallying Francophone Quebec appears, this is wishful speculation.

Without factoring in Quebec, it is easy to think of Canada as a three-party system: two main parties plus the NDP as the innovator, the source of policy ideas. But the NDP itself does not necessarily buy into this account. There is a current within the party that sees Liberal weakness as an opportunity to take a more broad-based party of the centre left to confront the right wing Conservatives. In this scenario, the NDP would replace the Liberals as the dominant party.

Setting aside Quebec can only be done at great cost to understanding elections and party politics. But another reality for the NDP is that by its history and aspirations it is not a brokerage party: it is a political movement, a farmer-labour party, representing salaried individuals against corporate interests, and independent agrarian producers against agri-business.

Reasons for founding, supporting and sustaining the CCF/NDP lie in debates about how best to rally urban and rural workers to a party whose main objective is to put an end to the submission of society to private owners of public resources, and private appropriators of wealth produced by the collective efforts of individuals. This means confronting private power holders disguised as public corporations, and their allies in our society.

If, instead, the idea is to build a large brokerage party of the centre left, why not just join the Liberals? That is where Bob Rae ended up, and it seems to be inherent in the logic of the NDP as replacement for the Liberals argument.

When Bob Rae left the NDP it was to embrace an agenda that was more inclusive of business interests, and, by extension, less concerned with defending workers as workers. If we are to end up with a Liberal Democratic party does it matter if it comes about through Liberals joining New Democrats or through New Democrats joining Liberals?

Having in Parliament today an anti-war party, one ready to campaign on the issue of climate change, and not afraid to denounce corporate crimes is what gives Canada a political culture much different from what is offered in the U.S.

Ensuring a parliamentary presence and public support for a labour-based party is a goal worth pursing in itself. There is no good reason to give up the dream of making that party the dominant force in Canadian politics, in both languages, in every region, in order to be one side of a two-party system.

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